Ben Simmons entered college basketball last season as the nation’s most hyped prospect.
They mentioned him in the same breath as LeBron. He was a stalwart on national television, and every major publication had some sort of feature on the freshman before he ever played a second collegiately.
And it was all downhill from there. The Aussie point forward saw his team stumble through the early part of the season and struggle in league play before collapsing down the stretch. His numbers were insane. His team turned down a bid to the NIT.
At this point, it’s fair to say that Simmons is, quite clearly, not the generational talent so many wanted him to be entering college. But he is a gifted athlete with a unique skill-set that, in theory, has a very bright future in front of him.
But just how bright?
Height: 6′ 10″
Wingspan: 6′ 11″
2015-16 Stats: 19.2 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 4.8 apg
STRENGTHS: Simmons is the easiest player to scout in this year’s draft class because it’s just so obvious what he does well while his weaknesses are even more glaring.
Let’s start with the physical tools. Simmons is 6-foot-10. He’s quick. He’s agile. He’s fluid. He can move laterally. He runs the floor like a deer. He’s got some bounce to him. He checks in somewhere around 230-240 pounds. (He didn’t get his physical profile measured at the combine.) He moves like a player six inches shorter than him and he’s built like typical power forward. When combined with ball-handling, his elite-of-the-elite vision and ability throw no-look bullet passes all over the court, he becomes him a constant highlight reel. Simmons is better than anyone that I can remember watching at the college level at grabbing a defensive rebound and leading the break, and his phenomenal ability to clean the glass (he averaged 8.8 defensive boards) is a major reason that more than a quarter of his offense came in transition, according to Synergy’s logs.
Let’s go back to his passing for a minute: He’s ridiculous. His ability to see plays develop and find a way to get the ball to whoever is open is just not something you see out of someone his size. He passes out of double-teams in the post, he can pass on the move and he can lead the break.
Simmons is not all that long — his wingspan has been measured at under 7-feet multiple times — but he has an uncanny ability to anticipate where a rebound is going. Players don’t average 11.9 boards by accident, and if there is anything that we’ve learned over the years, it’s that the ability to rebound translates between levels of basketball.
If Simmons isn’t scoring in transition, there are some limits to what his effectiveness will be at the next level given his issues shooting the ball (more on that in a bit). But there are some things he does very well. He can get to the rim off the bounce and he has the body control to split defenders and create space to get a shot off in the lane. He’s not great at finishing through contact but he’s exceptional at drawing fouls, getting to the line nine times per game last season.
Simmons seems to prefer being isolated on the perimeter or put into ball-screen actions, but he can also score from the low- and mid-post. He shoots left-handed but when finishing from six-feet and in he generally uses his right hand, including a jump-hook that was pretty effective. His quickness also creates problems for slower defenders, as he has an effective jab-step that’s set-up by his quick spins and rip-throughs.
If you just watched a highlight reel from Simmons’ freshman year — like the one you see here — you’ll probably convince yourself he is the next NBA superstar. But there’s so much more to the story here.
Simmons made just one three his freshman season. He attempted just three. He was 14-for-45 on jumpers, per Synergy. He shot 67.0 percent from the free throw line. That isn’t terrible, but his jump is ugly enough that there are scouts out there that believe he should follow in the footsteps of Tristan Thompson and switch which hand he shoots with; he’s currently a lefty, although he’s always coming back to his right hand around the rim.
Obviously this is a problem in today’s NBA, which is entirely built around the concept of spacing. It was a problem for him in college as well, as one of the strategies that opposing teams employed come SEC play was to play five or six feet off of him and offer a ton of help. LSU had their own issues with spacing offensively even before Simmons was dared to shoot.
The biggest issue that this caused was that Simmons, when he wasn’t being guarded, became passive. It affected his entire game, and therein lies the biggest concern that NBA teams have about him: He’s terrific when he’s motivated, but what is it going to take to keep him motivated for an 82-game season?
By the end of the year, Simmons had essentially quit playing defense. That isn’t putting it too harshly, either. Anyone could watch an LSU game and see that he simply did not care about that end of the floor. Perhaps the most frustrating part is that wingspan is really the only thing that limits Simmons’ potential as a defender. He really should be a guy that can guard wings and guard fours. He should be able to switch onto point guards and handle small-ball fives. He’s that kind of athlete. He doesn’t want to be that kind of defender.
I don’t like comparing Simmons to LeBron, but the one place that I think it is fair is when you look at the performance LeBron put on in the 2015 NBA Finals. His Cavs were totally overmatched and going up against what may be the greatest team in the history of the NBA, and LeBron damn-near averaged a triple-double and had Cleveland up 2-1 in the series. They eventually lost, but that had as much to do with LeBron’s body being unable to handle the ridiculous workload as it did anything else.
Simmons was in a similar situation with LSU this season, and he opted to pout the one time that his head coach tried to punish him — he was benched for the first five minutes of a game against SEC bottom-feeder Tennessee that LSU lost by 16, and Simmons’ effort was an embarrassment. At the time, the Tigers were just a week removed from a win that many believed had pushed them onto the right side of the bubble. That was a crippling loss to their season, and a moment that made a big impression on a number of people the same way their joke of a performance in a 71-38 loss in the first round of the SEC tournament did.
Just how competitive is this kid if he’s willing to give up on his team like that? Does he want to be an NBA champion or does he simply want to live the life that comes with being an NBA player?
Simmons has other question marks. His turnover numbers are too high because he tries for the highlight instead of the smart play. His length gives him some issues finishing at the rim against NBA size. He struggles to create in the half court when he doesn’t have a chance to get a head of steam. People refer to him as ambidextrous, which isn’t exactly true. He shoots jumpers lefty and he shoots everything in and around the rim right-handed. He has no off-hand around the basket, and he struggles to finish around the rim, period. As impressive as his body control is, he tends to play out of control, particularly when attacking the basket.
But all things considered, it’s his shooting and his desire to be great vs. being famous that matter far more than anything else.
NBA COMPARISON: The comparison that everyone seems to make with Simmons is LeBron James, and on the surface, it’s not terrible. These days, as a 31-year old and a 13-year NBA veteran, LeBron essentially plays the four on both ends of the floor, which is what Simmons looks like he’ll end up being in the NBA. That wasn’t the case five years ago, however, just like LeBron isn’t near the defender that he was five years ago. That helps with this comparison. They’re both big, they’re both versatile, they’re both sensational passers with question marks surrounding their jumper. I get it.
The problem, however, is that it’s just so unfair to compare anyone, let alone a potential No. 1 pick, to a man that many consider to be the greatest basketball player of all-time. Think about it like this: LeBron has won two NBA titles, he’s been to the finals seven times (including six straight season) and he’s been the MVP four times, yet there are people — not just Skip Bayless — who have decided that the hill they’re going to die on is that ‘LeBron James is overrated.’ So how will people react when the kid that was hyped as LeBen, the Next LeBron, turns out to be a poor man’s version of James?
The comparison that I’ve always made is to Lamar Odom, but even that’s not perfect. Simmons is more athletic and a much better passer while Odom was a better shooter and a bit taller, although Odom’s impact and career trajectory is what I expect Simmons to produce.
OUTLOOK: Simmons has the highest ceiling of any prospect in this draft. If his jumper comes around, if he decides that he wants to be a really good defender in this league, if he ever figures out how to take over a game and a team, he’s got a shot at being one of the 10 or 15 best players in the NBA.
The question that Philadelphia — and the Lakers, or anyone else considering trading up for the No. 1 pick — has to ask is whether or not Simmons will ever reach that potential.
There’s no guarantee that he ever wants to be a defender. Players that quit on their team, like Simmons did far too often his freshman season, don’t usually get that coached out of that. And it’s worth asking whether or not he actually wants to be a great player and a winner as opposed to just a star athlete. For that to happen, he’s going to need to spend hours and hours and hours in a gym, perfecting that shooting stroke. It can be done — see Leonard, Kawhi, or Hield, Buddy — but it requires a player with a work ethic that borders on psychotic.
I think it’s more likely that Simmons’ ceiling is as a complimentary piece on a title contender, which is why I like the Odom comparison so much. Odom averaged 13.3 points, 8.4 boards and 3.7 assists for his career, but those stats are skewed but a couple of bad years at the end of his career. For a four-year stretch with the Lakers, Odom averaged 15 points, 10 boards and 4.5 assists was the No. 2 or 3 option on a team that won two NBA titles and reached a third Finals.
All in all, that’s not bad.